Hinkley Point, HS2, Heathrow and fracking at Little Plumpton! The government’s in-tray includes some big decisions about big-budget projects. Thinking in Whitehall is apparently edging towards borrowing to build and a more pragmatic, civic-minded approach to infrastructure; more about jam today (or at least not decades hence), balancing the needs of consumers and citizens.1Julian Francis, ‘The age of May – and what it means for infrastructure’, Infrastructure Intelligence, 7.10.16.

The changes in emphasis and rhetoric have followed a Brexit vote which brought into sharp focus the need for government to stimulate national and local economies in efficient, equitable ways. Laying track, building runways, upgrading our roads and energy sources, can all help. But if we build it, will they come? How should we do it? And will it be worth the effort and money?

With these questions in mind, Ipsos MORI surveyed Britain and 25 other countries, asking the public in each how they rated infrastructure, as well as gauging their priorities for improvement and attitudes towards delivery.

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Business and the government will be cheered that 76% of Britons are of the view that investment in infrastructure is vital to future economic growth, and there is recognition that action is needed. Sixty per cent agree that we are not doing enough as a country to meet our infrastructure needs. The need is considered so great that 44% of the British public believe we should borrow to fund this investment – substantially higher than the global and G8 averages (34% and 31% respectively) – while 16% are opposed and 40% are unsure either way. We are also open to the idea of foreign investment – 42% say they are fine with it if projects can be delivered more quickly as a result; 20% aren’t. This makes Britons fairly pragmatic and a little more comfortable with foreign investment than G8 countries. However, government caution is warranted, as a significant 38% still aren’t sure.

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But the picture isn’t all rosy. There are several challenges (and opportunities) facing any proposed investment in infrastructure. In particular, the image of infrastructure. Forty-eight per cent agree that Britain ‘has a poor record at getting national infrastructure projects right’ (only 12% disagree).

Despite the widespread media coverage of recent projects, many people are yet to form a solid opinion. At every turn, our survey picked up a large chunk of people struggling to give an answer one way or another. Infrastructure is not a word on everyone’s lips and opinions are often very conditional on the detail.

This conditionality may be down to the local nature of infrastructure projects. Sixty-seven per cent justify delays to infrastructure projects if it means that local communities’ views can be heard properly, a higher proportion than the 59% in G8 countries. The public are very sensitive to winners and losers. This can be seen in some of the reactions to the approval of plans for fracking in Little Plumpton. More generally, we find people anxious about change but also fearful of stagnation.

These factors make up a complex and changing socio-cultural backdrop that infrastructure leaders must navigate to ‘land’ projects so that they are accepted, if not always welcomed and cherished.

Building a narrative about better infrastructure for a better Britain will take concerted effort. This isn’t just about communications, or PR, or reputation management, important though these are. It is also about the way infrastructure is done; the way it is planned, delivered, managed and evaluated.

The message from the public is ‘get on with it (but do it right)’. The infrastructure story must be well told, but in the years ahead that story must turn into fact, not fiction.

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